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Kobo: a case of compelling magazine reading.


Toronto-based Kobo offers a variety of e-reading devices and free apps for Apple, BlackBerry, Android, and Windows platforms. It also has what it calls "one of the world's largest eBookstores," with nearly 4 million titles across 68 languages. Kobo's mission, according to its website, is to lead a "global transformation in reading by inspiring people to read more and more often--anytime, anyplace, anywhere around the world."


The e-reading space is a hot one, and when your company is competing with the likes of giants such as Apple and Amazon, it's imperative that you stay on the cutting edge. Kobo's CEO Mike Serbinis says his company needed a "best-in-class" digital magazine retail and conversion experience. "We needed something that could compete with, and even be better than, the offerings that were out from Apple and from Amazon," he adds.


Headquartered in France, Aquafadas develops software for digital publishing to tablets and smartphones, as well as software for animations in Flash and HTML5, video creation, and more. It also offers AveComics, which is used by French and international publishers to publish comics to tablets and smartphones. Aquafadas sells its products worldwide; key markets include Germany, the U.S., the U.K., and Japan.


Kobo offers a variety of e-reading devices and apps, but the company isn't simply interested in providing people with how to read--it wants to provide them with what to read as well. As Serbinis puts it, Kobo looks "to create the best possible digital reading experience for people who have books at the center of their lives."

"While we do manufacture devices and manufacture apps," he says, "fundamentally, we're in the business of selling content. All of the devices we make and all of the apps we create are really just so we can have the opportunity to sell someone the next thing they'll want to read."

Customer research told Kobo that when its readers are done with a book, they're most likely to want to buy a digital magazine. So Kobo decided it made sense to get into the magazine business. "Our fundamental challenge was that we didn't have a magazine store, and we didn't have a magazine-reading experience in a very competitive market where customers were beginning to expect that you would be able to have both books and magazines coming through the same app, through the same store, at the same time," Serbinis says.

Serbinis knew there was an opening. He says existing digital magazine offerings "weren't very compelling." Either they were versions of magazines rebuilt so completely "they didn't even look like magazines," he says, or they were essentially "replicas of existing pages of magazines"--which weren't that pleasing for readers.

The problem with straight replicas, Serbinis says, is that readers really have to give their finger a workout. He offers as an example a magazine such as Vanity Fair, whose stories appear on pages in three columns. With a straight replica, he says, you'd have to pinch in to get it to a size you could read, then gradually scroll down to the bottom of the column with your finger, then scroll back up to the second column, and gradually scroll down again--all the while hoping you don't cough or sneeze or do something to throw your finger off-center as you're doing that interminable scrolling. It is "in no way an enjoyable reading experience," Serbinis says.

He says Kobo felt that "[I]f we can create a magazine-reading experience that is easier for people to navigate, that looks better, that reproduces many of the things that they love from the print world but adds additional digital enhancements on top of it, then we can compete for that customer, compete for that reading buyer, better."


Serbinis says Aquafadas "solved the readability issue of a digital magazine" through its Guided Reading feature, which allows readers to follow along with a story "just by tapping the page." With Guided Reading, you start by tapping the first column at the beginning of an article, and the screen automatically zooms in to a size that's "right for reading," Serbinis says. Then, all you have to do is a single tap and you are scrolled down exactly the right amount needed to see the rest of that column. Done with the column? Just tap it again, and automatically you're taken up to the top of the next column. Guided Reading essentially "follows the columns for you."

"What that means is you're not losing the formatting of the page, but you get the same sort of ease of reading as if we stripped out all the words and put them in a separate window," Serbinis says, adding that stripping out the words is something Kobo knows people don't want. "It's that mix of editorial and visual and design and photography that makes people like magazines and be willing to pay for them," he adds. "The last thing we would want to do is try and turn a magazine back into a webpage and take that value away."

But for magazines that want more--well, Aquafadas has them covered too. Serbinis says Aquafadas offers magazines the capability to embed multimedia and to embed different kinds of enhancements, in order to create "incredibly innovative publications that go way beyond what the print ever was"--it's up to each magazine.

Aquafadas' CEO Claudia Zimmer agrees that her company's Guided Reading "offers a very nice reading experience to users" and says that--since all Aquafadas needs for the Guided Reading are the same PDFs of files the magazines were going to send out to be printed anyway--it's "easy to add for publishers because it can be used on a file created for print."

Aquafadas also has an environment called Cloud Authoring, which, Serbinis says, allows the company to manage thousands of magazine titles and create that Guided Reading experience with minimal commitment of staff and very low operational cost. Zimmer says Cloud Authoring lets "publishers automatically convert a large amount of files without additional work for their team and without damage to their servers--because everything happens in the cloud."

Publishers, Zimmer says, "can create a file once and publish it to a large range of devices," such as Kobo, Android, or iOS. "They can do it step by step, from the generation of a simple PDF replica to the creation of a complete interactive magazine, using the largest toolset of interactivity."

Publishers, Serbinis says, can work with Kobo to prepare their titles for Kobo "essentially at no charge." However, he adds, Aquafadas' offerings allow magazines to export to other formats--such as building an app, a newsstand app, or an Android app--and there is an additional incremental charge for that, but, Serbinis says, "it is a significant savings compared to going and starting from scratch again and using another set of tools to be able to build that same edition."


"The better the tools that we can make available to publishers and the easier it is to make a good-looking magazine through Kobo," says Serbinis, "the easier it is for publishers to say, 'Yes, even though I'm very busy, even though my production department is swamped all the time, I want to work with this retailer and make sure I can have my titles in their store.'"

Kobo and Aquafadas don't have the standard company-vendor relationship. When Kobo decided it wanted in the digital magazine publishing business and decided it wanted to work with Aquafadas, it acquired the company. Kobo knew its customers wanted a magazine store, but, Serbinis says, "then we were faced with that classic dilemma of do we try to build all of that ourselves from scratch and all of the components that are necessary to deliver that experience--the reading experience, conversion tools, all of the stuff you need to deliver a magazine-reading experience," he says. "Do we create a vendor relationship? We could. But if this is fundamental to our strategy, then we really want to make sure ... we can be secure that that vendor was always going to be with us. And the easiest way for us to do that was in the end to acquire them."

Serbinis feels Kobo is "providing a better magazine experience than any of the other magazine providers we see out there today." Now, the company can show off this better experience with some of the biggest names out there. In early December 2013, the company announced readers in the U.S. and Canada can now purchase a variety of popular fashion, pop culture, health, and sports magazines right at Offerings include Bon Appetit, GQ, TIME, Maclean's, People, Us Weekly, and more.

"We used Aquafadas to build an entirely new service offering that for us didn't exist before, an entirely new product offering that we didn't have before, and a new category of content that we never sold before," Serbinis says. "That was the problem that we solved, and that's how Kobo became an entirely better offering through the use of Aquafadas."
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Title Annotation:case study
Author:Thompson, Mike
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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